The Last Five Years. Book, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Richard Block. Dramatic Productions. April 24 to May 2. Teatro Vivaldi. Dinner and show from 6.30pm (tickets $70/$80/$90); 2pm matinees with canapes (tickets $30/$40/$50.). Prices depend on seat location. Bookings: stagecenta.com or 6253 1454 (Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm).
Not many musicals in Canberra are performed with two complete casts sharing the run. But not many musicals have only two actors.
For Dramatic Productions' presentation of The Last Five Years, director-producer Richard Block has elected to double-cast the roles of Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein, with Vanessa de Jager and Fraser Findlay performing from April 24 to 30 and Josie Dunham and Mathew Chardon O'Dea from April 30 to May 2.
Partly this was for practical reasons, he says – "It's a two-person show so if a performer gets sick or hurt you're in a lot of trouble" – but also, he says, it was an opportunity for more people to obtain paid professional work in Canberra.
"They can put it on their CVs."
The Last Five Years tells the story of a relationship from two perspectives – writer Jamie's from beginning to end, and actress Cathy's, from end to beginning, intersecting at the halfway point when they get married. Block says one of the cast approached him with the idea for the show and with its intimacy as a production and quality as a show it seemed like a good fit for the company and for Teatro Vivaldi as a venue.
"It's got both good music and really clever writing," Block says.
"It's quite ingenious in the way it approaches the story."
While there is no suspense regarding the outcome of the relationship, since the audience knows from the start that it's doomed, the show's power comes from its examination of the characters – their strengths, their flaws – and how things came to happen the way they did.
The show debuted in Chicago in 2001 and opened off-Broadway the following year, winning the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics. It has had many productions since and was recently made into a film.
Block, who has been involved in Canberra theatre for the past decade both on stage and off, started his company with The Rockitelly Man, a co-production with Ickle Pickle Productions, last year and says he wants to recognise the contributions of the performers – who are chosen via auditions – and the production team by paying them both a fee to do the show and a share of the profits.
He acknowledges the risks of forming yet another theatre company in Canberra – especially a professional one – but thinks it is time cast and crew were recognised financially for their work. He is already planning his next production for the year, Into the Woods, and says that the reception of these shows will determine if his model is sustainable.
As for the two casts, he says each has different strengths they bring to the show.
"The older pairing, Fraser and Vanessa, bring a little more maturity to their roles and boldness to their work. Josie and Mat are younger and make it a lot more playful but they have no less energy and are no less heartfelt."
Jamie is Findlay's first lead role in Canberra but he brings a long history of performing experience to the part. The 33-year-old performer of Scottish and US parentage moved between the two countries as a child and started out as a classically trained singer. At high school he became interested in musical theatre and studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City.
"When I graduated my first job was with an educational theatre company. I went on a national tour of the US in a bilingual French and English production of The Little Prince."
With seven others he drove around in a van with a trailer for a few months and says it was both "incredibly exciting" and a "tough slog". But he enjoyed it and learned a lot before returning "back to the business of being a New York performer: waiting tables".
It became clear to him that there were plenty of performing jobs out there for people who were willing to move beyond the big city and he took a job on a cruise ship as a singer, doing several shows a week and learning new shows regularly.
"It was intense: a lot of work and a lot of fun."
He did that for a few years then worked in Dubai doing corporate work, television and teaching musical theatre to children, among other things, then joined the European vocal group The 12 Tenors, with whom he still performs.
Findlay met his Australian partner while performing with the Tenors and moved to Australia a few years ago but found it hard to break into the professional musical theatre world here without any local connections. However, when they moved to Canberra he found plenty of opportunities to perform, albeit not many in a professional capacity, and has appeared on stage in La Cage Aux Folles and Mary Poppins. He is working on building up professional connections but meanwhile teaches and performs in Canberra.
He says the characters in The Last Five Years are "pretty much as close as we get right now to normal everyday life if musicals could portray such people".
Like anyone, he says, Jamie and Cathy have "hopes and dreams and aspirations" and the audience gets to see what works and what doesn't in their relationship, with just the two of them on stage singing.
"It's almost an opera – it doesn't really rely at all on dialogue."